Wiki Roles for Student Projects

As most of you already know, I’ve been doing a lot of work with wikis this year, writing about wiki safety and trying to define wiki-goodness.  One of the lessons that I’ve learned about wiki projects with kids is that the organic creation that defines Wikipedia doesn’t always work with middle schoolers!

You see, Wikipedia is completely fine with the inevitably unbalanced participation of those who are creating pages with one another.  While some members will edit pages thousands of times and make significant changes in both content and structure, most will only make a few contributions every now and then.

If left to chance, that same unbalanced participation pattern becomes evident in classroom wiki projects as well.  While that pattern is worth embracing for informal wiki efforts, I’ve found that when using wikis as a group project to assess learning, middle schoolers need a set of specific tasks.  Sometimes, shared participation is more important to me than individual exploration.

Knowing that, I put together the following roles that I plan on using with students in future wiki efforts:

The Link Layer:  One of the characteristics of high quality wikis is a heaping cheese-load worth of links to outside sources.  Links are essential on any website that you create because they allow readers to explore the topic you’re discussing on their own—and to validate that the information you share is accurate.

The link layer of your group is responsible for all of the links included in your document.  Link layers should begin by identifying logical places to include links in your group’s work.  They should also check each source that you link to for bias and/or accuracy—and be willing to replace any questionable links included in your group’s work.  Link layers should use the checklist found here to evaluate the websites included in your group’s document.

The Flow Master:  Have you ever finished reading a piece of text and been completely and totally confused?  Have you ever had to read something three or four different times before you could even begin to understand what the author was trying to say?  Frustrating, wasn’t it?!

The flow master of your group is completely responsible for reviewing your work to make sure that your readers aren’t left confused.  They should be on the constant lookout for sentences that just plain don’t make sense or places that make readers go, “Huh?”

The flow master should read—and reread—and reread again and again and again—after all, wikis change every day.  If there are any text sections that need clarifying, the flow master should make revisions that improve the “readability” of your group’s document.

The Spelling Cop:  Nothing ruins a good piece more than 8,000 spelling errors.  It’s simply impossible to be convincing when you can’t spell anything correctly!  Readers will stop thinking you’re an expert after two—-or maybe three—-spelling errors.

The spelling cop of your group has a seemingly simple job:  Checking the spelling of every single word that is added to your group’s document.   The spelling cop had  better be persistent, though—-every time that your page is revised is another chance for a word to be misspelled!

The Discussion Starter:  Good group projects start and end with conversations.  After all, how can you really work together if you don’t take the time to talk to one another about what you’re producing?!  To make sure that conversations are a part of the work you do on this wiki, you’re going to need a discussion starter.

Your discussion starter’s home is going to be the discussion board of your group’s page.  Their job:  To ask constant questions about what it is that your group is producing.  Discussion starters should be good evaluators, checking your page against the pages produced by other groups and finding ways that your work could be improved.

They should also be good planners, helping their group to set due dates and complete required tasks.

Captain Spit-and-Polish:  Exactly how much time would you spend at a website that included no graphics or interactive features?  How much time would you spend on a website that didn’t include paragraph breaks or proper spacing between words?  What about on a website that just plain didn’t look interesting?

Right:  None!  Think about all of those pages that you land on and leave in two clicks.

Your group’s Captain Spit and Polish is in charge of making sure that doesn’t happen to you!  They need to find images and graphics that support the arguments your group is making and to make sure that your layout is professional and interesting.

The trickiest part of being Captain Spit and Polish is remembering who the audience for your page is—-and making sure that your graphics, images and layout is appropriate for that specific group of people!  The kinds of pages that appeal to twelve year olds probably won’t appeal to anyone over 22!

Remember that regardless of the role that you are assigned, your wiki page is a group project–so if you can help a partner complete their task too, you’re really just helping yourself!  When you come across resources or ideas that might improve your final product, be sure to use the discussion board of your group’s page to share ideas.

So what do you think?  Do my wiki roles cover all of the kinds of tasks that you’d like to see students engaged in when they’re using a wiki for group collaboration?  Have I left anything out?

Better question:  What kinds of structures do you create for your students when working with wikis?

Best question:  Do the structures that I’ve set for my students help or harm my efforts to create responsible 21st Century learners?

Looking forward to your replies….

10 comments

  1. Pat

    I like the responsibilities broken up like this. I think this would work for adults too! Unfortunately I created a wiki for a committee that I am chairman of but I couldn’t get them to post anything. I finally ended up doing it all and asking them to look over it.Now I’m using your list of things as my own review checklist. Thanks!

  2. Mary Tedrow

    Your wikis sound very much like any creative process where the end product is a single product produced by many. For instance, a school newspaper or yearbook produced by a staff must look, in the end, like a single publication. Everybody has to get their portion to fit the agreed upon style so it looks like “one” when they are done. The breakdown of the jobs in any group setting helps students see how the process works. Traditional teachers have to learn, like students must learn when creating a single product, that the process is messy and often takes much longer than the old stand and deliver method. The old saying is you don’t want to see a newspaper or sausage being made. Our students – and many adults – don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes of a polished finished product. It is messy, recursive, sometimes loud and rarely looks like the traditional classroom all in orderly rows. For someone just starting down this road in teaching it is very scary and often criticized by others. (You’re not covering the curriculum. Your kids are having fun while we are getting REAL work done, etc.) And, when the product is finalized, everybody is a critic. (Very easy to criticize when all the heavy lifting has been done.) The challenge to teachers who begin to implement these kinds of projects is to know clearly what you are hoping the children will learn (in this case process) over the final product. It makes it a whole lot easier to explain to the administrator, parent, or colleague why your room doesn’t look like theirs. In assessing what the kids produce – something I always consider the least of what went on – remember to look for the donut and not the hole. What new skills did they acquire? What kind of thinking is exhibited? rather than an emphasis on correctness. If something goes public and begins to draw in commentary, the kids will insist on correctness. Just like most adults, they don’t want to be embarrassed. (Your Spelling cop, after the first go round, will be the most popular kid in the group if you do a repeat project.) Also, let the kids tell you what they learned about how they achieved the final product. I like to include a reflective writing so they can tell me: what was the hardest part? what do you know about how you got your job done? what would you do differently if you had more time? what have you learned about technology? This kind of writing is really writing-to-self and helps the kids tell themselves (and reinforce) what they have gained from the project. These questions – my students tell me – ruin the fun for them because now they have to think (analyze) what they accomplished and how they did it. But, hey, that was my point in the assignment in the first place, so tough luck. Think about it so you can do it again the next time.

  3. Patrick

    Bill,
    As usual, we are sharing brains again. One of our teachers recently surveyed her students, much like you do, regarding wiki and blog use in their educational experience. The results were less than sunny for those of us who see potential in the area of social media in the classroom. What struck me about the student negativity towards technology in the survey was that the issues they describe as unfavorable (busy work, just another homework assignment, no point to the discussions, etc.) are all addressable by using something akin to the roles you describe.
    What I would like to really know is how these roles, and other wiki-best practices can be honed and translated for teachers who are willing to try them. Keep churning out ideas like this one!

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Fred,
    Glad that you liked this post—and glad that you’re thinking about tackling wikis next year!
    They’re definitely the most approachable Web 2.0 tool for both teachers and students.
    I’d recommend that you check out the two links early in this post. Both might give you a bit of guidance in your efforts.
    As far as what good classroom wikis look like, here are a few that I’ve stumbled on in my work that I think are pretty solid:
    Horizon Project 2007
    http://horizonproject.wikispaces.com/
    Digiteen
    http://digiteen.wikispaces.com/
    British Romanticism
    http://britishromanticism.wikispaces.com/
    Hope these help,
    Bill

  5. Fred Ravan

    Great ideas. Although this year has barely ended, I am thinking about next year. I would like to use wikis more but, the assessment portion frightens me. I haae no experience with student created wikis, my students have no experience creating wikis for class and as such, I am hesitant to do. What does a good student wiki look like? What is a bad one? I would love to see a rubric, or examples of what students have created. fravan@breweredu.org

  6. tarvin

    I taught 9th graders this semester, and quickly realized that we needed more structure. It’s interesting that the teams I came up with are pretty similar to yours. We have content cops (which is missing for your list, maybe because 9th grade boys need more policing than middle schoolers?), linkers, discussion starters, and format artists (aka-captain spit-and-polish). I assigned them into teams, and then switched them every week or so. I think they need to learn how to do all of these things if they’re going to be smart “21st century thinkers.” It’s scaffolding!